Interview: The many realities of Edwin Morgan

Scotland's greatest living poet, Edwin Morgan, loves to shock and likes to sooth. As he tells Judith Palmer, on the eve of the publication of a new collection of poems, he will continue to keep switching themes.
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"I suppose I always manage to renew myself somehow," muses Edwin Morgan. "People always say that Glasgow has had umpteen social problems but keeps finding ways of getting over its difficulties and transforming itself. Maybe, belonging to the city I'm able to renew myself too, and keep extending out into some new area."

Edwin Morgan, now 77, has been one of the most consistently important innovators in British poetry for nearly half a century. His latest collection, Virtual and Other Realities, shows him as inquisitive and wantonly versatile as ever.

"It's extraordinary the way different layers of reality are getting mixed up now," he chatters excitedly, discussing advances in new technology with an enthusiasm shared by few poets a third his age.

"It's got to a stage now where it will be quite possible in future to resurrect a dead actor and put him or her into a new film, and you wouldn't know it was not the real thing," he assures me. "It'll be quite alarming, won't it, to have a new Marilyn Monroe film to watch."

There has long been a sneaking feeling among poetry critics that Morgan might himself be the product of some weird sci-fi experiment. How else to explain this incredible prolificity and range of styles? He reinvents himself in each poem. Just how many Edwin Morgans are there? Is the much- anthologised sound poet who sang "The Loch Ness Monster's Song" ("SSSnnnwhuffffll? Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl") the same as the concrete poet who programmed "The Computer's First Christmas Card" ("jollymerryhollyberryjollyberry merrychrysanthemum ...")? Quite possibly.

But how about the sonneteer? The translator of Racine, Neruda and Mayakovsky? The tender love lyricist ("After you left, / your cigarette glowed on in my ashtray / and sent up a long thread of such quiet grey / I smiled to wonder who would believe its signal of so much love.") or the Glasgow urban realist ("At Central Station, in the middle of the day, / a woman is pissing on the pavement.")?

Is the twinkly-eyed little chap in the jaunty pink jacket talking to me in London today really the same man who used to loom grimly out from poetry festival programmes in heavy-rimmed glasses like some Stasi arch- interrogator?

"There's a young girl doing a PhD on me in Dortmund and it really looks like she's the first to pull all the different sides together," says Morgan with relief.

"If I was deliberately to say I'm not going to write any more science fiction poems or poems about Glasgow there would be something wrong. It would be easier for critics to find their way around, certainly," Morgan admits, "but you don't write for critics. I hope it will get sorted out in the end - I suppose it must do, as it does come from one mind, after all."

Morgan was born in Glasgow in 1920. His father was a clerk for a firm of ship-breakers on the Clyde, and Edwin grew up in suburban comfort as a cherished only child. His parents weren't bookish, but they succumbed to their son's craving for popular encyclopaedic part-works.

"You didn't get much every week, but in the end you got a good big fat book out of it," Morgan remembers. "Each part would have a chapter on a great variety of topics and you could switch from birds to the internal combustion engine to Ancient Egypt. Some people found it very disturbing - complaining `I like a book of birds, I don't want to be told about the pharaohs too'. But I loved that switching about."

Transcriptions of interesting dreams were placed in surreal and intimate juxtaposition with every kind of picture and newspaper clipping, as he snipped and pasted away from 1932 right through the war until 1966.

Despite the tempting proposition of a job at a carpet factory, Morgan plumped for art college, then reconsidered and opted instead for an English Literature degree at Glasgow University. Then the war: after initially registering as a conscientious objector, Morgan enlisted with the Army Medical Corps and was sent to the desert.

"It was very unheroic, typing, typing, typing," he reflects, "but dangerous, mind you. If you're in the medical corps you aren't armed - a sort of pacifist in uniform, in a sense."

Whatever else he typed, however, it wasn't poems. "Morgan ate sand, slept sand at El Ballah / while gangrened limbs dropped in his pail," the poet finally recalled some 30 years later in Sonnets from Scotland; but at the time, not one word could he coax from his desert. "Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg managed it in the First World War," he chastises himself still. "I felt very guilty about it - five years, more than five years not writing anything at all."

Since his post-war return to Glasgow (and an English department position which he held from 1947 until he retired as an OBE-d professor in 1980), Morgan's typewriter has scarcely stopped tapping. His collected works are already as thick as a couple of Dickens.

Is it guilt at having failed to document "the big event" that has driven him so relentlessly to record everything else? All the human tragedies played out in two-line newspaper stories, the lives overheard or overseen from the deck of a number 59 bus or the corner table of an evening snack bar?

Tormented or misunderstood figures bring out the best in Morgan's poetry: from the Hungarian poet Attila Jozsef to Cinquevalli, the music hall trapeze artiste, wolves, hyenas, or highland midges.

"I like to give a voice to others, especially things neglected or despised," he admits. "You have to keep the sympathy going. Poetry is partly sympathy, don't you think? If it's any good, it gets people to think about others' points of view."

A shy and generous man, Morgan has worked doggedly to promote Scottish literature (whether reviving the study of Dunbar or encouraging the current crop of young poets - Richard Price, Robert Crawford, Kathleen Jamie et al), instead of securing his own reputation.

Most poets of his calibre will save their precious poems for Poetry Review or The New Yorker, but Morgan will usually already have given most out free to tiny deserving literary endeavours such as Gairfish Southfields or Skinklin Star. "You don't like to say the cupboard is bare," he shrugs. "It's all very well being in The Times Literary Supplement but I also quite genuinely like to appear in small but interesting magazines."

Only occasionally does Morgan pamper himself, but when he does, he does it in style. Before the space shuttle disaster he put his name on the waiting list for the first civilian holiday flight in space. Then he blew his winnings from the Soros Translation Prize on a day trip to the Arctic Circle on Concorde.

Straddling the worlds of formalism and experimentation, academia and the underground, Morgan has inhabited many many realities. On his 70th birthday, he revealed yet another dimension to his closely-coded life when he came out as gay.

"I suppose I'm offering people a world to move about in and see what they make of it. Enjoy as much of it as you can," Morgan suggests. "After I'm gone it'll be easier to say it all came from one strange person who did actually exist. I wasn't a committee, I was an actual person."

`Virtual and Other Realities' by Edwin Morgan is published this week by Carcanet at pounds 6.95.

the piranHas

Did anyone tell you

that in each subway train

there is one special seat

with a small hole in it

and underneath the seat

is a tank of piranha fish

which have not been fed

for quite some time.

The fish become agitated

by the shoogling of the train

and jump up through the seat.

The resulting skeletons

of unlucky passengers

turn an honest penny

for the transport executive,

hanging far and wide

in medical schools.

siesta of a hungarian snake

s sz sz SZ sz SZ sz ZS zs ZS zs zs z

From Collected Poems (Carcenet)